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Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Give 'em razzle, dazzle and all that jazz


Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Rob Marshall
Running time: 113 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing

Wearing the adjectives gorgeous and brassy, sexy and sassy like yards of fur and chunky jewelry, "Chicago" sashayed off with the Academy Best Picture Award on 5-inch heels. In the same week that the United States launched a war on Iraq, what was decreed as the nation's most outstanding film of the year is about two women who committed murders, then walked free to become mega-bombshell showgirls. If there's a god in cinema heaven, s/he must be having a wicked chuckle over this one.

News photo
News photo
News photo
From top: Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere in "Chicago"

First penned as a stage play by Chicago Tribune reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins in the 1920s, then made into a jazz musical by Bob Fosse in 1975, "Chicago" has been around for 80 years and remains a timeless and cynical reflection of what makes America tick. Check out the movie's tag-line: "If you can't be famous . . . then be infamous." The whole story, in fact, can be summed up in a handful of maxims, such as: Evil turns to good when it gets under a spotlight; the sheer will to earn fame and power can equal fame and power; whoever wins over the media, wins the day; and nice guys (yawn) finish last. The brilliance of "Chicago" is that it takes these cliches into the dressing room for a posh, glamorous makeover, so that they come out looking brand new. You know how the tritest phrases sound profound when they come out of the lips of a beautiful woman? That, folks, is "Chicago."

Aptly, "Chicago" runs on a powder-keg combo of desire and desperation. From start to finish the characters all want, want, want, and fortune smiles on those who want more fiercely than others. The tone is set right in the beginning: Housewife Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) purrs to her extramarital boyfriend, Fred (Dominic West), about how much she "wants" to go on the stage. Fred did say he knew the manager at a nightclub -- so when can she see him? Purr, purr. But when Fred welshes, then tries to ditch her all in the same evening, Roxie empties a gun into his retreating back.

That very night, she winds up in murderesses' row where her stage-dancing idol Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and four other ladies are pouting behind bars, supervised by warder Mama Morton (Queen Latifah). Mama is what can be called a loving despot -- she plays mother hen to the prisoners and grants little treats, and she takes cash only.

Her current favorite is Velma, who looks upon jail as just a drafty dressing room, complete with her silk lingerie dripping from a chair back. Velma can keep her cool because through Mama, she has secured the services of hot-shot attorney Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), who specializes in getting female criminals off the hook. His fee is a flat $5,000, and he likes to say that if Jesus Christ had come to him with five grand, then "things would have turned out differently."

Velma is scornful of Roxie until the latter manages to hire Billy, too, thanks to the efforts of her loving husband Amos (John C. Reilly). Billy launches a media campaign, pegging Roxie as "Chicago's cutest murderess" and sets the stage for a dramatic acquittal. In the meantime, the seesaw of power dips up and down in prison -- Roxie and Velma lock horns over fan mail and the attention of tabloid columnist Mary Sunshine (Christine Baranski) who, it seems, devotes her entire career to sensational murders.

But Velma wises up to the truth of the situation before Roxie has a clue: Fame is fickle, honey. Both Billy and the Chicago press are always after the next violent femme, their attention span lasting about as long as the victim's blood on the sidewalk.

In a memorable cameo, Lucy Liu appears as heiress Kitty Baxter who guns down her husband and his two lovers. She's dragged into jail before a crowd of adoring reporters, whose camera flashes had been aimed at Roxie just hours earlier. Billy looks admiringly at Kitty ("Isn't she something?") as Roxie literally claws at the cell bars to get his attention. Velma gazes on this quietly and lights a cigarette. Brief but effective, it's one of the darkest, most cynical moments in the movie.

Director Rob Marshall probably never intended to preach anything, but in many ways "Chicago" is waist-high in puritanism -- a finger-wagging accusation of American society peeks from underneath the sparkling sequins. It's understandable, given that Watkins had been a reporter during the heydeys of Al Capone, and Fosse had grown up doubtful of his tough Chicago neighborhood. Rather than downplay this, Marshall highlights the contrast between the strong and weak, poor and wealthy.

This is most apparent in the way Mama and Billy treat the quieter prisoners in the cellblock: They ignore them completely. In a disturbing scene reminiscent of Bjork's fate in Lars Von Trier's "Dancing in the Dark," the Hungarian convict Hunyak (Ekaterina Chtchelkanova), who speaks no English and cannot defend herself, is hanged without trial. While everyone else jazzes it up in this movie, the fragile Hunyak performs a tragic ballet. It's as if her very fragility sealed her fate. We're never told what her crime was, or whether she's really guilty, just that she was far too modest to spark Billy's interest.

Meanwhile, Velma shows miles of leg and canyons of cleavage as she belts out a song about offing her husband and sister when she caught them in bed ("He Had it Comin' "). Roxie too, flaunts a deep knowledge of bitchiness with her song "Funny Honey," all about blaming her crime on her "sweet funny honey" of a husband -- before the police got wise and arrested her.

The nastiest is Billy. From his blatantly hypocritical "All I Care About" (in which which he confesses to defending poor oppressed women out of love, not for money) to the smug "Razzle Dazzle" (the secret of his courtroom successes), Billy pretty much admits that he's obsessed with wealth and victory. He calls life "a three-ring circus" and the jury "my audience" and tells Roxie that murder is the people's entertainment.

In such company as this, it's hard for other cast members to get a word in edgewise, though they sometimes manage. Reilly as Amos steals the scene in a number called "Mister Cellophane" in which he lays bare the misery of being the invisible guy who's ignored by the world. Amos takes quite a beating throughout -- cuckolded shamelessly, then used by Billy to testify in court as a loving, decent husband who trusts his wife. Instead of being appreciated, Amos just gets kicked around, then out of the film. Reilly is sadly underused here, as is Latifah who has just one number to herself ("When You're Good to Mama") and generally comes off as sidekick (albeit a splendid one) to the two lithe murderesses. It's regrettable, but understandable -- in a ruthless environment like "Chicago." At least Reilly and Latifah are on their way to bigger roles and the exposure they deserve.

In Berlin, where the movie opened the city's international film festival, a German distributor reportedly came out of the screening, his face lit up with glee, and said, "Even if I hate America, I still love 'Chicago.' " It has a way of doing that, of drawing out mixed emotions of admiration and resentment. The movie itself, despite its puritanical streak, suffers from no such complications. Like the crowd that cheers for Roxie and Velma, it remains a glittering celebration of winners.

The roads most often taken

In "Chicago" and in Hollywood, there seems to be two roads to stardom: to be Ms. Congeniality or to be Regal Bitch on Wheels. No prizes for guessing which routes Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones took.

Renee got her big break playing opposite Tom Cruise in "Jerry Maguire" (1996) as a hardworking secretary who put up with almost anything from dear Tom. Trouble is, after this role, she kind of disappeared into a vortex of mediocre movies and didn't resurface again until "Bridget Jones's Diary" (2001). To play the plump heroine, she put on 10 kg by gorging on cheeseburgers and bagged an Academy Award nomination.

Compare this with Catherine. She has consistently chosen roles that fit her and not the other way around. She stole headlines when she fenced with Antonio Banderas in "Mask of Zorro" in 1998 (and won), then twisted Sean Connery around her finger in "Entrapment" in 1999. In "Traffic" (2000) she plays the heavily pregnant wife of a Mexican drug lord, screaming cell-phone instructions to her contract killer as she drives through heavy traffic.

"Chicago" draws on the differences between the two leading ladies while showing us that ultimately, they are the same and need to stick together. Velma is shrewd enough to know this right away. Roxie, who's always trying to sugar-coat her own shrewdness, resents Velma bitterly. "I hate you" Roxie hisses to Velma but unperturbed, Velma replies: "This is the one business where that doesn't matter."

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